x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Gulf Cup: UAE swept up by a fever

As UAE prepares for Tuesday's Gulf Cup semi-final, there is real conviction that the trophy is there for the taking, writes Ali Khaled.

"Ahmed Khalil explodes, it was worth the wait, it was worth the wait."

The unrestrained shrieks of joy from commentator Faris Awad that greeted the UAE striker's two goals against Oman at the Gulf Cup on Friday were enough to bring a lump to the throat of even the most cynical Emirati football fan.

The "wait" was in reference to Khalil's seemingly endless goal drought – the Al Ahli striker had not scored a competitive goal for the UAE senior team since September 2011, and his strike in last month's friendly against Yemen was his first in any senior game since then.

But Awad might as well have been speaking of the long, sometimes tortuous, wait the country has endured for it's national football team to emerge from a period of painful underachievement.

At the 21st Gulf Cup in Bahrain, the wait is over.

The UAE's finest football moments at senior level are few, but memorable.

Winning the 2007 Gulf Cup at Zayed Sports City.

Losing the 1996 Asian Cup final to Saudi Arabia at the same venue. And, above all, qualification for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Despite losing all three games at the tournament, the squad received a rapturous welcome from a grateful nation.

"At the forefront of the greeters were Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, who spared no effort during our stay inside or outside the UAE as a national team," squad member Abdulaziz Mohammed told The National two years ago.

"On the second day of our arrival, we went to meet the late Sheikh Zayed, who thanked us for the great success we had achieved by qualifying for the World Cup."

Now, once again, the nation is falling in love with "The Whites".

Moreover, as the team prepares for Tuesday's semi-final, there is real conviction that the trophy is there for the taking. The transformation in the national mood over the last month has been remarkable.

The last time the UAE played on home soil, a 2-1 friendly victory over Estonia at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on November 14, fewer than 400 fans showed up to see them. Interest in the national team, on the wane for several years, was arguably at an all-time low.

But the three victories by the team in Bahrain, the longest such run of wins since that title triumph in 2007, have changed things. Here finally, for Emirati fans, is a team to be proud of.

Rightly or wrongly, football continues to engender national pride in a way that other sports simply cannot match. From the coaching staff and the players, through the fans at home and in Bahrain, to the country's media, it seems everyone is slowly being swept along by Gulf Cup fever.

The tournament was touted as a testing ground for the real business of qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, head coach Mahdi Ali alluded to that in his pre-tournament quotes.

But, in just over a week, that script has been rewritten.

Now, the man responsible for the stratospheric expectations is the man tasked with keeping the players' feet on the ground. For Mahdi Ali, coaching his country's senior side has been a long time coming. And for the first time in the UAE's football history, an Emirati coach stands on the brink of glory.

It helps to have overseen perhaps the most grounded group of players that the UAE has produced perhaps since the 1990 squad.

The majority have played under Mahdi Ali at several age-group levels, culminating in last summer's Under 23 squad at the London Olympics.

The team's unity was never more evident than after Khalil's two goals against Oman.

The striker, nicknamed "Red Card", had been struggling for form and his scoring touch had deserted him; the almost childlike glee of his teammates following his redemption was a joy to behold.

Above all, the UAE now has, perhaps for the first time since Adnan Al Talyani retired in 2003, a national hero that seems fully at ease carrying the hopes of the nation on his slender shoulders - the lithe, bushy-haired figure of Omar Abdulrahman.

Blessed with wonderful vision, a magical left foot and a priceless ability that makes it seem he has more time on the ball than every other player on the pitch, the Al Ain midfielder has been, by some distance, the player of the tournament so far.

"Omar wearing 21, has shaken up Khaleeji 21 [the Gulf Cup]," gushed Awad.

In Bahrain, the passion of the travelling support, including for the first time a contingent of female fans, has been nothing short of magnificent, a far cry from the public apathy that the senior team's dismal results have fostered over last few years.

On social media, too, a generation too young to remember 1990 is tweeting about the nations football revival.

For those glued to their television sets at home, the emotive commentary of cult figure Awad is fast becoming as much a part of this success story as the voice of legendary Emirati commentator Adnan Hamad was for the UAE's previous golden generation of Al Talyani, Zuhair Bakheet, Fahed Khamis, Muhsin Musabah and Khalid Ismail.

It has been a long wait.

But now, 23 footballers (Mahdi Ali insists that every player in his squad is a "first choice") are bringing a smile back to Emirati football. At 3.15pm on Tuesday, the UAE expects.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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